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Personality is generally understood in two different ways: (1) trait based and (2) situational. A trait-based understanding defines personality as the relatively stable set of psychological characteristics that influence an individual’s attitudes and behaviors and differentiate one individual from another. People have a variety of personality traits formed by their genetic predisposition and long-term learning history. A situational understanding defines personality as the sum total of ways in which an individual reacts and interacts with others and with his or her environment. Human behavior is a function of both psychological dispositions and the immediate situation that a person is in. The history of the study of personality traces back to 370 b.c.e., when Hippocrates proposed the “four humours,” through which he believed that individual differences could be explained. Similarly, Plato proposed four groupings of characteristics to explain human behavior: (1) artistic, (2) sensible, (3) intuitive, and (4) reasoning. Much of the modern trait-based personality research is based on these characteristics.
The modern version of trait-based personality research starts with Sigmund Freud. In 1928, Freud presented three components of the human psyche: (1) id, (2) ego, and (3) superego, all of which controlled an individual’s behavior through conscious and unconscious thought. In the 1930s, Carl Jung popularized two personality traits: (1) extroversion and (2) introversion, which laid the ground work for advances in trait-based personality theories. Sharing Jung’s assumption that individuals are predisposed to behave in certain ways, many theories have tried to categorize or define a person based on a list of personality traits. For example, Myers-Briggs Personality Tests were developed to determine how people usually act or feel in particular situations along four dimensions: (1) extroverted or introverted, (2) sensing or intuitive, (3) thinking or feeling, and (4) perceiving or judging. Similarly, the “Big Five” model was developed along five dimensions: (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness, and (5) neuroticism. Trait-based theories on personality are popular in modern organizations for job recruitment, job placement, and sometimes performance management as ways to measure the desirability and fit of future and current employees.
However, trait-based understanding of personality has many weaknesses and problems. For example, there is a general assumption that a trait is consistent within an individual and will not change as much as the situation changes. However, people with a personality trait behave differently depending on their perceptions of situations. For example, a Type A personality may always be impatient with the pace at which most events take place at work, but as soon as they get home, they might begin to exhibit more Type B personality traits, such as being more relaxed, because they feel no sense of time urgency and spend most of their time away from work relaxing. Similarly, different people often perceive the same behavior settings in very similar ways, leading to highly consistent behaviors for people with very different traits. Many situations have implicit constraints or explicit rules that encourage or force people to behave in predictable ways, regardless of their particular personality traits, such as in church or at a funeral. Thus, the general traits independent of a situation become meaningless, and researchers have found very low correlations between traits and the predicted behaviors. There are also many problems when people try to measure personality traits. For example, the personality tests generally have vague questions and usually induce the socially desirable answers because the traits are value laden. No one will disclose in personality tests in a job interview that they are lazy, neurotic, introverted, and dislike team work.
In 1935, Kurt Lewin published A Dynamic Theory of Personality, where he strongly criticized trait-based understanding of personality and proposed a new way of understanding human behavior. Lewin’s approach to personality explains human behavior based on how the individual perceives and acts within the context of his or her immediate psychological situation. In his theory, Lewin viewed behavior as the result of the properties and dynamics of one’s psychological field “here and now,” as a product of totality of the psychological situation. Every behavior depends on the psychological state of the person and on the environment. Human behavior is viewed as a function of both the person (i.e., Lewin does not rule out the fact that individual differences exist) and the total situation as perceived by the individual, where
Behavior = f (Person, Situation).
In this view, human behavior can be predicted if one is able to take into account the total “field” of “psychological forces” acting on the individual. However, psychological forces are not simply external to the individual the way physical forces might be understood. They are subjective forces experienced by the individual, based on how he or she perceives and makes sense of his or her immediate psychological situation. Thus, to predict the person’s behavior in any situation, a researcher must try to see the person’s situation as the person sees it in order to understand the psychological forces experienced by the person. Because the individual’s behavior is in a dynamic (constantly changing) relationship with his or her psychological situation, Lewin’s approach is called a dynamic theory of personality, in contrast to trait-based approaches that attempt to predict behavior based on a static categorization of the individual’s personality type.
In summary, although there are other schools of thought on personality such as behaviorism or a humanistic approach, the trait-based view and situational view on personality dominate the current interpretation on personality. Trait-based views of personality start from properties of the individual and assume that these properties are predictors of behavior. At best, situations and context are viewed in terms of moderator variables that may influence the relationship between personality and behavior. A situational approach on personality does not preclude the possibility of individual differences. However, to explain or predict a person’s behavior, one must start by examining the individual’s psychological situation: the situation as the person subjectively perceives it. Individual differences play a role in human behavior because they may be associated with differences in how individuals perceive their immediate situation, which may derive from differences in background, culture, and gender.
- Funder, David. “Personality.” Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (2001).
- Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.
- Lewin, Kurt. “Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total ” In Environments: Notes and Selections on Objects, Spaces and Behavior. S. Friedman and J. B. Juhasz, eds. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1974.